Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Black Corsair

Turn on an outdoor light anywhere in the eastern U.S. at night at this time of year and you are likely to attract one, if not several, individual males of the assassin bug known as the “Black Corsair,” Melanolestes picipes. Why only males? More on that in a moment. What are they doing there? They are likely looking for other insects to prey upon.

This species exhibits what is called sexual dimorphism. Adult males are fully winged and are strong fliers. Females usually lack hind wings and have the front wings reduced to mere pads, though there are exceptions. They are nocturnal, like the males, hiding under stones, boards, and other objects by day.

Female M. picipes, Taney County, Missouri

This is among one of the most abundant assassin bugs in the United States, found from New England to Florida, and west to Colorado, Utah, and California. It is often confused with the Masked Hunter, but the Black Corsair averages smaller, at 15-20 millimeters in body length.

Most specimens from the northern part of its range are wholly jet black, but southern specimens may have a red or orange edge to the abdomen, or even have the abdomen entirely red. Those specimens are sometimes confused with the bordered plant bugs I wrote about last week. The red-bordered forms of Melanolestes picipes were formerly considered a separate species, M. abdominalis. The two are now recognized as a single species.

Male M. picipes, Taney County, Missouri

A highly distinctive feature of these agile assassin bugs are the “ankle weights” or “leg-warmers” they seem to be wearing on the first and second pair of legs, at the distal end of the tibial (“shin”) segment. The inflated attribute is called the fossula spongiosa, a pad composed of a dense mat of hairs, with pores beneath them that exude a thin film of oil to the flared tips of the hairs. The whole affair allows the bug to chase prey over slick substrates, cling to struggling victims, and grip a mate in the case of males.

M. picipes from Cape May, New Jersey, after a bad molt

Be careful that you don’t ever mindlessly swat one of these insects if it lands on you. The defensive bites of assassin bugs in general are excruciating, and the odds of being bitten go up when the Black Corsair comes to town. Because they are attracted to lights, and run and fly with great speed and agility, the males may find their way indoors.

It is just this scenario that played out in the notorious “kissing bug scare” in the summer of 1899 in the eastern United States. Accounts vary, some stating the panic began with a single incident of a woman being bitten in Washington, DC (Freiberg, et al, 1984); others claiming there really was a higher incidence of bites from bugs that year. That sensationalized newspaper reporting helped fan the flames of paranoia is a subject of unanimous agreement. Whether the assassin bug responsible was the Black Corsair, or the Masked Hunter, neither species would have been lusting after human victims, simply looking for insect prey in the wrong places.

Male M. picipes, Manhattan, Kansas

Sources: Berenbaum, May. 2009. “Kiss and telmophage,” Am. Entomol.. 55(2): 68-69, 112
Freiberg, Marcos and Jerry G. Walls. 1984. The World of Venomous Animals. London: T. F. H. Publication, Inc. Ltd. 191 pp.
McPherson, J.E., S.L. Keffer, and S.J. Taylor. 1991. “Taxonomic Status of Melanolestes picipes and M. abdominalis (Heteroptera: Reduviidae),” Fla. Entomol. 74(3): 396-403
Slater, J.A. and R.M. Baranowski. 1978. How to Know the True Bugs. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 256 pp.

31 comments:

  1. I have found this one only twice here in AZ. Thanks to your article I now know that my 'nymph' may have been a female with reduced wings. Here in SE AZ adult T. rubida are now beginning to show up at lights. Till the monsoon comes, they'll be with us wherever there are packrat nests, and that means nearly everywhere except in central Phoenix

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  2. I have spotted one of these cool little guys in my basement apartment twice already this month . Should I be concerned?

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    1. No major cause for concern; but you might be confusing this species with the "Masked Hunter," which is perhaps even more commonly found indoors.

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  3. Just got bit by one of these last night.. Pretty sure it was a male.. WORST. BUG. BITE.EVER.!!!! WAY worse than a red wasp sting or anything else I've ever been bitten or stung by!!! Avoid these bugs like the plague! Lol

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    1. Ouch! Very sorry to hear of your experience.

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  4. I just found it in my house (I am in Indonesia). Is this dangerous, Sir?

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    1. This species does not *occur* in Indonesia, so I cannot comment on your insect.

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  5. Do we have them in Canada ? I could've swore I just killed one of these in my kitchen ?

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    1. Hi, Lynn....You probably saw a "Masked Hunter," Reduvius personatus, which looks nearly identical to the Black Corsair.

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  6. I found multiple of these in my house last night (in Michigan). What is the best way to rid of these insects? And should I be concerned for my family? I heard some nasty things about their bites.

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    1. I suspect you might be talking about the "Masked Hunter" rather than the Black Corsair (I did a blog post about them, too), but in either event it is unlikely that you or your family will suffer bites if you are the least bit aware of them. *Neither* insect transmits diseases, which I think is the concern you are alluding to. I do not give pest control advice here. Simply relocating any "indoor" bugs back outside should alleviate the problem (put a glass over the bug, slip a card under the bug and glass, and then carry outside).

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  7. The picture that you posted of the Black Corsair looks very much like the insect that appears in my home every summer! I live in Michigan and am puzzled about what this insect is and how so many get inside the house?

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    1. I wish I could tell you! Insects are often surprisingly good at getting in or out of things that seem impenetrable.

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  8. Hi, I found one crawling on me and killed it, I took photos, wanted to make sure its the right one, how do i upload a photo?

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    1. You can try the forum here (see tab at top of this page); otherwise, upload to a known photo-sharing site like Flickr, then include the link in a message here. Thanks.

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  9. Hi, just want to know, is this bug can found in asia? Im from malaysia got bite frm bug that just looked like this?....

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    1. No, this species does not occur in Asia.

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  10. Hi Bug Eric

    I just received a bite from an insect that looks and acts exactly as you have described. It is excruciating, is it dangerous?

    I am in South Africa in the Kruger National Park.

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    1. I am sorry for your experience! This particular species does *not* occur in Africa, so it was likely some other kind of assassin bug that bit you. I do not have expertise on African insects, sorry.

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  11. I got bit and I blistered real bad on antibiotics

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    1. I am so sorry to hear that. :-( Hope you are completely recovered now.

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  12. Just got bit again by one of these little *&^%$#@$. In Texas

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    1. Thank you for omitting the expletive; and do get well soon.

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  13. Is there any harm from their bite. I was just bit by so.etching that looked like this and it hurt!

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    1. Reactions vary according to the victim's immune response. It is irresponsible to make sweeping generalizations about insect bites and stings. *Usually* pain and swelling and tenderness are the major reactions.

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  14. I just got bit by one in eastern us! It looked just like this and the pain was terrible and still is. Should I be worried?

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    1. Monitor your symptoms. Pain is normal, maybe a little swelling, too, but shortness of breath or any other such major symptom should have you seeking medical attention. Sorry for your ordeal!

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  15. Thank you for your site! I was afraid that a kissing bug had bitten me until I saw the photos and comments posted here. I was bitten on the pinkie finger 5 days ago in SE Oklahoma (one of the most painful insect bites I've had the misfortune to experience) It hurt terribly bad, even down the side of my hand and arm.It's still vaguely sore at the site of the bite itself. I am allergic to lots of things so maybe my experience is worse because of that. -Audrey

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    1. I'm sorry you had to endure that! Your description falls perfectly in line with what I would suspect for anyone receiving a bite from one of these insects. Worse for some than others, surely, but still an awful ordeal.

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    2. Thank you! It was memorable for sure. I'm glad to have found this blog- very interesting. I like bugs they're fascinating.(The corsair bit me while I was courteously escorting it back outside, so ungrateful!) I think you could live forever and still find a bug you haven't seen before.. Anyway, keep up the good work! - Audrey

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    3. Thank you for the compliments!

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